Base Tuono – Cold War Surface-To-Air Missiles in Italy

Just like West Germany, post-WWII Italy found itself on the border with a communist dictatorship, Marshal Tito’s Yugoslavia. Even though Tito and the government of the USSR were never close friends, from the viewpoint of the western alliances Yugoslavia represented a potential threat.

This mistrust was also a result of the aggressive policy Yugoslavia had adopted against Italy after WWII, imposing the cession of a piece of traditionally Italian territory in the northeast part of the country as a war compensation. This had triggered a significant migration of the local population, who was trying to escape from communism to mainland Italy and abroad. This added to the bitterness of the Italian-Yugoslavian relationship, to the point that the new border was not formally settled until the 1970s.

Italy was among the founding members of anti-communist NATO in 1949. This meant the chance to take part in a coordinated defense effort against the eastern bloc. Among the tangible results of this cooperation was the adoption of American war material, including aircraft and, as soon as they became a reliable war asset, missiles.

Considering air defense, besides a number of manned aircraft, the airspace of western Europe was protected by two defensive lines of surface-to-air missiles (SAM) extending roughly from the North Sea to the area around Venice on the Mediterranean. This was studied especially to counteract bombing raids carried out by a great number of enemy bombers simultaneously attacking from the east. This huge defense system was based on the US-designed Nike and Hawk missile platforms, and deployment started in the late 1950s.

SAM installations in Italy comprised the low to intermediate altitude Hawks, with a quick reaction capacity against low-level intruders. These were managed by the local Army. High altitude Nike-Ajax and later Nike-Hercules missiles were operated by the Italian Air Force against high-altitude targets, typically bombers. New dedicated groups were established since 1959, trained in the US to work with the new missile platform. At its height, the Nike force in Italy counted on 16 such groups, apparently corresponding to as many launch bases.

Concerning the effectiveness of the Nike defense line, it soon became obsolete, in the sense that a significant part of the strategic deterrent was transferred to ICBMs by both the NATO countries and the USSR. As a result, SAM defensive lines conceived against aircraft intrusion and low-level attacks would turn out more useful than the high-altitude and high-yield Nike-Hercules. As a matter of fact, all Nike platforms were deactivated in Italy and everywhere in Europe by the early 1980s, well before the end of communism in Europe.

Following deactivation, most bases, stripped of all hardware of any value, were simply locked up and abandoned. In Germany very few traces of this extensive system remain to this day (see this post). Together with the US, Italy is possibly the only country where this fragment of military history is documented through the active preservation of one of the former SAM launch bases.

The Nike-Hercules base preserved in Italy is called ‘Base Tuono’ – ‘tuono’ meaning ‘thunder’ in Italian language – and was operated between 1966 and 1977. It is in a gorgeous mountainous setting in the northeastern Alps, about an hour from the little town of Trento. After years of disrepair, a part of it has been refurbished with original material and opened as a beautiful, partly open-air museum, where you can get a lively impression of how the base would have looked like in the years of operations.

The following photographs are from a visit to ‘Base Tuono’ in Autumn 2018.

Sights

Nike batteries were composed of two connected but geographically separated areas, an integrated fire control area (IFC) and a launch control area (LCA). In the first resided the electronic aiming part, comprising all the antennas and electronic gear necessary to collimate the target, compute the expected kill point of the missile, and to track and guide the missile to that point. The launch area was composed of an array of three flat concrete pads, each supplied with a hangar for storing the missiles, gantries for putting typically three missiles at a time (per pad) in launch position, and a concrete shelter to oversee and trigger the launch sequence. An extensive description of the Nike SAM system can be found on this excellent dedicated resource website.

Due to the features of the radar guidance system, the IFC had to stay in line of sight from the LCA, and at a higher – but not excessively higher – elevation. At ‘Base Tuono’, due to the mountainous setting, the two areas are not far, yet they are not easily accessible from one another. Furthermore, what remains today of the former base is all concentrated in the launch area. One of the three original pads – ‘Alpha’ – has been preserved, where the other two – ‘Bravo’ and ‘Charlie’ – and other ancillary buildings as well, have been completely demolished, and a water basin can be found in their place. All installations and housing in the former control area on top of a local peak – Mount Toraro – have been wiped out, but you can get an impression of the original plan of this part of the base walking around on your own.

Launch Control Area

The launch pad ‘Alpha’ is the focus of the museum. Approaching from the parking, which is located close to the site of the former barracks and canteen, you can spot from the distance three Nike-Hercules missiles aligned in vertical launch position. A water basin covers a large part of the former base, as you can see from historical pictures. Launch pads ‘Bravo’ and ‘Charlie’ are totally gone, similarly to the original outer fence delimiting the large perimeter of the installation.

Getting closer to the launch pad ‘Alpha’ you can notice an array of radar antennas, which were originally in the IFC area on top of Mount Toraro. The area of the launch pad features a reconstructed inner fence, which was in place around each pad in the original base.

The pad is basically rectangular in shape, with a hangar on one side, a protection rim and the launch control bunker on two opposing sides and a free side where today you can find the ticket office.

Three missiles are placed on top of their launch gantries. The gantries are part of a sophisticated rail system, designed to allow an easy side motion of the missiles from inside the hangar to their respective launch positions outside. The missiles were stored horizontally in the hangar to the far top of the rail on trolleys. When being readied for launch, the trolleys were pushed along the rail to the launch position, where the trolley was joined to the gantry. The missiles were raised to a vertical attitude together with the trolley with the help of a lift, which was a movable part of the gantry.

While the pavement is covered in asphalt, you can see the gantries and the rail system are staying on hard concrete foundations. These are among the few remains you see in the German Nike site covered in this post.

Inside the hangar you can spot a Nike Hercules missile, with lateral cutouts to expose the inner structure. These reveal the four-canister solid-propellant booster stage, which was ignited first and was separated from the bullet-shaped second stage when exhausted. The latter features the warhead, the electromechanical rigs of the guidance system, and a single solid-propellant sustainer rocket engine. The rocket had a range of about 25 miles, and a top speed over Mach 3, making it a really remarkable piece of technology especially compared to the soviet counterparts of the time.

All around the missile in the hangar you can see inner parts of the missile itself and of the ground fire control system as well. There are also panels with the history of the base, and original warning signs and instructions painted on the inner walls of the hangar – and similarly on other walls of the base. These writings are in double language, both in Italian and English. While the base was managed by the Italian Air Force, such installations were integrated in the NATO defense line, so many procedures of the Italian Air Force were in English. Furthermore, US military staff was required on site ‘by design’ in case of operations with nuclear warheads, which the Hercules could optionally carry. Nuclear warheads were never deployed to this base though.

Further items on display around the three missiles on the open apron include an old Nike-Ajax missile, a Lockheed F-104 Starfighter – the Italian Air Force was the last in the world to retire this model from service, as late as 2004 – and two trailers aligned in a row. The trailers are the battery control trailer, or BCT, and the radar control trailer, or RCT. Both trailers were originally in the IFC area of the base, and were operated by the staff responsible for offensive operations. In the days of operation, there was always somebody on duty in the trailers.

The BCT is, roughly speaking, where targets were designated, the kill point computed and the launch sequence triggered. The most notable feature are the two computerized plotting boards used to identify the target and to define the flight trajectory of the missile. The LOPAR detection radar and the identification friend-or-foe (IFF) radar reported information to this trailer, which coordinated the attack.

In the RCT stood the operators of the TTR and TRR radars, which were responsible for keeping trace of the target and for monitoring the missile during the flight towards the designated kill point.

To the back of the two trailers, it is possible to spot the rectangular shapes of the LOPAR radar and of the smaller IFF radar. The two round-shaped antennas are the TTR and TRR radars. In many pictures they are portrayed inside a bulbous cover, conferring them a distinctive spherical shape.

The concrete bunker to the opposite side of the launch pad with respect to the trailers is a protected room for the launch section panel, which is a kind of control panel for triggering the launch sequence of the missiles. The bunker served as a shelter for the operators of the launch section, for remaining on the outside in the vicinity of the missiles during launch operations was extremely dangerous.

During the guided visit, you are given a demonstration of the launch sequence from inside the control room, which is insulated from the outside with double tight doors. The firing procedure was quite complicated. Actually, it was a direct signal traveling along a cable connection from the battery trailer that gave the go to the missiles. Yet there were redundancies for increased safety, and it was possible to trigger the entire launch sequence from within the firing section, in case communication with the BCT was lost. During normal operations, the OK from the operator of the control panel in the bunker had the function of a further go/no go safety layer for the launch.

A trailer with a panel similar to that in the bunker can be found outside. This likely represented a further redundancy, or like the F-104 it is a piece coming from somewhere else.

To the back of the bunker with the fire section panel you can find an original watchtower from a US base in northern Italy, similar to the towers originally in place around the missile base. Close by, there is a nice example of the canisters used to the transport the stages of the Nike-Hercules, as well as the crane used to assemble it. There is also a further example of the second stage of the missile.

Getting there and moving around

The ‘Alpha’ battery of the launch control area is open as a museum, called ‘Base Tuono’. It is located on the road SP143, which departs from Folgaria, a small town about 12 miles south of the regional capital town Trento. You can find clear roadsigns leading to the site from Folgaria.

The museum has opening times, visiting is generally possible on a self-guided basis. Access to the bunker and the trailers is possible only on guided tours. All information on their website (in English). Large free parking about 0.2 miles away from the entrance.

There is much to see for technically minded subjects, but the visit will be surely appealing for children too. I would recommend to allocate at least 45 minutes for the visit, and up to 2 hours if you want to take a guided tour and take all the pictures on your own. The scenery around is gorgeous, so it will be easy to combine this destination with a nature trail or with other tourist destination in the area.

Integrated Fire Control Area

This is where the radars and trailers used to stay, together with barracks and service buildings. It can be found about 2 miles south east direct line of sight from the launch pad, on top of Mount Toraro. Differently from the launch control area, this area has been demolished and sanitized. No buildings remain in place, yet some of the former foundations and platforms to anchor the trailers can still be seen.

Reaching to the top of the peak is interesting to appreciate the view of the launch site from here. Unfortunately, at the time of my visit low clouds obstructed the sight.

Getting there and moving around

Even though the wide original road to reach this part of the base still exists, for some reason access to the top of the mountain is not allowed by car. In order to get to the trailhead from the museum, you can take your car and keep going southeast along the SP143 for about 1.5 miles. As you go ahead, the road will change the name to SP92 on your nav. Soon after the road starts descending, you will find the trailhead to your right, with a horizontal obstacle and a prohibition sign for cars. You may park there. It is likely the trail to the top of Mount Toraro will be on your nav too, for it is basically a normal road. The distance to walk to the top is about 1 mile, along the former service road to the base – covered in asphalt, gently ascending, no risk of any kind.

The Border Forts of Czechoslovakia Against Nazi Germany

The Maginot line – a line of forts running along the French border with Italy, Switzerland, Germany and Belgium – is a widely known example of military engineering from the inter-war period (see this chapter). The adopted construction technique, based on reinforced concrete pillboxes with walls several feet thick, half interred to decrease visibility from above, field cannons and anti-tank defensive guns, witnesses the great consideration given to tanks and aircraft as attack weapons.

Due to the fast movements typical to the new strategy of the German army since the beginning of WWII, the Maginot line is mainly remembered for having not been involved in any major action, and having being largely bypassed. As a matter of fact, the German opted for a bypass also because the line was in place, so it was not as ineffective as it is often thought.

What is possibly even less known is that similar defensive lines were built in earnest in other European countries, before and even during WWII, after the Maginot line had failed to stop the invading German army. The enormous Salpa line, built by Finland against the Soviet Union, was probably the last and most effective to be completed (see this chapter). The Stalin line, prepared by the Soviets against Germany in Belarus, is another example. Another country who invested much in this type of deterrent was Czechoslovakia.

To understand the drivers of the design of the huge line of forts envisaged by the Czechoslovakian government of the mid-1930s, one should take a look at a map of Europe from the time. After the defeat of WWI Germany had managed to keep significant parts of todays Poland. The border between Germany and Poland ran close to Gdansk – aka Danzig in German -, and the province of Lower Silesia with the town of Wroclav – Breslau in German – were undisputed German territory. This means that todays border between the Czech Republic and Poland used to be actually a border between Czechoslovakia and Germany in the years before WWII.

With the turmoil preceding the infamous Munich Agreement and Nazi Germany claiming the right to control ‘Sudetenland’ – a large part of the peripheral territories of todays Czech Republic – in 1937 the Czechoslovakian government quickly started the construction of a huge system of forts to protect the border.

The concept was pretty similar to that of the Maginot line, with extensive underground tunnels to shelter soldiers and ammos, facing to the surface with reinforced concrete bunkers with different purposes, including observation, artillery shelling with field cannons, mutual protection with short range anti-tank cannons, machine guns and grenade-throwing tubes. There were also bunkers for accessing the tunnel system with resupply. About 10’000 light fortifications were actually built, more than 200 heavy fortified positions and a handful of heavy artillery positions.

The geopolitical situation in Europe got worse quickly in 1938, with the annexation of Austria in spring and finally the Munich Agreement, which caused the dissolution of Czechoslovakia. As a result of this internationally approved de facto German invasion, the works on the defense line were halted by the Wehrmacht. A relevant part of the hard construction had been completed, but most of the bunkers were still unarmed or lacked some software – air filters, ammo supplies, everyday items for the troops, etc. – and were not serviceable.

Most of the ironworks, including especially all heavy-metal turrets, were salvaged by the Germans. Some of the cannons found their way to the Atlantic Wall. The most massive concrete bunkers were used to test new weapons. As a result, the majority of the most sizable structures are still today in a partly damaged shape.

Some of the bunkers came to life again in the 1970s, when re-founded Czechoslovakia, that time a satellite country of the USSR living under a repressive and hard communist dictatorship, started a low-paced conversion of some of the structures into nuclear shelters for top ranks of the military and political hierarchies.

Notwithstanding these incidents, todays Czech Republic is duly proud of the significant work which was carried out in the difficult late Thirties. Very much was done for the little time available, and the quality of the design and construction is remarkable. While most of the sites are open only rarely, there are some where you can step inside and enjoy an interesting visit. This chapter covers with photographs and text five larger fortified complexes along this anti-German defensive line, from a two-days visit taken in August 2018.

Map

The following map shows the highlights of each of the five sites listed in this chapter. Please zoom in for greater detail. For the Bouda fort I could not spot and pinpoint on the map all the pillboxes you can easily visit from the outside – this are covered by vegetation.

Navigate this post – click on links to scroll

Sights

Stachelberg

The Stachelberg site is located about three miles north of the small city of Trutnov. The fort should have consisted of a main entrance and peripheral shooting positions, some of them linked by underground tunnels, to defend the area of the Giant Mountains. Construction works were terminated much before completion, so the surface bunkers forming the ensemble are actually not connected. Yet the major installation, a bulky infantry positions with provision for anti-tank artillery, provides access to an extensive system of half-prepared tunnels, which gives you a clear picture of the size and capacity of the complex.

The site is open to the public, and the ticket office can be found right inside this huge major bunker. From the outside, the volume of this pillbox is particularly stunning. Also interesting are the anti-tank obstacles, which used to be placed along the border line and between the forts, to trap invading columns in a position where anti-tank guns could be most effective.

This multi-level bunker is also place for a little museum on the fortifications, mainly based on explicative panels and scaled models of weapons and of the entire bunker complex. It covers the history of the fortifications, and explains most technical features of their construction. There are no weapons or other software – they were either not installed before the construction works were stopped, or salvaged by the Germans.

The tunnels can be visited on a guided tour only, starting from inside the main bunker with a descent of several tens of feet along a flight of stairs, originally made at the time of construction. The tunnels unfold on the sides of a major, perfectly straight initial track. Some of the lateral halls, intended to store ammos as well as for sleeping the troops, are very large and close to completion, whereas others are just sketched.

The tunnels were dug in the rock with the help of explosives. The next step in the construction works would have been a layer of concrete from the pavement up to the ceiling of the tunnels. This is present today only close to the entry point, at the bottom of the access stairs.

There are at least other five smaller pillboxes which have been preserved to some extent in the Stachelberg complex. They are accessible with different timetables, and do not provide access to the underground – by design, some of them should have.

One of the pillboxes has been colored in a very bright camouflage. I could not find out whether this used to be the standard, but it looks pretty unusual and not really mimetic… There are also refurbished connecting trenches between the smaller bunkers.

The concrete base of a never built bunker can be found not far from the parking area.

Getting there and moving around

Getting close to the complex is really easy, the area is very scenic and a popular destination skiing, and for nature trail hiking in summer. There is a parking on road N.300 from where the museum-fort can be reached with an almost flat, 0.3 miles track.

The complex can be toured on the outside without restrictions. The main bunker has opening times, and the underground part can be toured only with a guide. The guide speaks Czech, but you are provided a leaflet with explanations in English, upon request. The tour takes about 30 minutes, and is offered on a regular basis, with several entries per day. They warn you about the inside temperature, but I found it pretty easy to bear with normal summer clothes. Website here, but you will need some Google translation to find the info you need.

Voda, Brezinka and Lom

These three forts are actually parts of the same system, built on the eastern end of the town of Nachod-Beloves, the major center in a local valley ending in Poland. Three items in the complex are typically accessible to the public.

The one closest to the town, on the bottom of the valley, is the Voda bunker. This is very convenient to reach, and is basically composed of a preserved typical infantry pillbox with provision for machine guns. The bunker has been painted in a credible camouflage. On one end it is possible to note the damage inflicted by the Germans, when they took out the metal observation turret. This kind of treatment – and damage – can be observed on a great many bunkers of the line.

Inside, the bunker has been turned into a local museum on the armed forces. There were border guards operating in the area, involved in skirmishes before and after the end of the war. The weapons originally intended for the fort are not in place, but there is an interesting collection of weapons, uniforms, motorcycles and other gear from the army corps operating around there over the years.

The Brezinka fort is possibly one of the most famous of the entire defensive line. The reason for that is that it was recently restored to look like it should have looked, if only it was completed back in the late Thirties. In the restoration process, weapons and system parts from other locations in todays Czech Republic were brought to the Brezinka site.

The visit of the interiors is really exceptional, even compared to the forts of the other defensive lines in Europe. The fort really looks like it could be put in operation today!

The first part of the visit of this two-levels artillery bunker will take you downstairs, where you can find the sleeping quarters for the troops with a food storage.

Close by, there are two rooms for the electrical generator and for the ventilation system. Here you can see the electrical compressor, with backup manual handles, and the huge air filters. These are multi-stage filters, where each stage was designed to stop different poisonous components in the air. The system is working, so you are given a demonstration of the compressor – interesting to get an impression of the incredible noise this system produced!

On the same floor there is also a telegraph system, which was used to communicate with other bunkers in the complex in case of failure of the telephone link. This system was capable of transmitting Morse signals to the other pillboxes next to it, projecting the signal into the ground and using it as a medium – there were no cables! This allowed it to work even if a direct electrical link was lost.

The upper floor is even more surprising, cause basically all weapons have been restored to their original positions. The Brezinka bunker featured two main firing chambers. The one pointing uphill features two heavy 7.92 mm machine guns Zbrojovka Brno Mark 1937, a very widespread and reliable weapon, with an operational range of 1’000-2’000 ft at 500-300 rounds per minute. These were used to target infantry movements along the border line, pinpointed by anti-tank obstacles. Fire direction was from the observation turret or via an optical aim system. The latter was extremely precise, but more expensive than the machine gun!

In presence of an impenetrable smoke curtain or at night, an open-loop aiming system could be used. This consisted of a board with a precise sketch of the view of the outside from the firing point, mounted on top of the machine gun. A calibrated needle pointer was used to align the machine gun with respect to the target, by simply pointing the needle on the intended target on the board!

The third machine gun is a light ZB vz. 26, a very popular light 7.92 mm machine gun. This was used for close defense of the fort access. There are also grenade throwing tubes for the same purpose.

The other firing chamber points downhill, and is supplied with a machine gun as in the first chamber, plus the assembly of an anti-tank cannon and another machine gun. The cannon is a 4.7 cm Skoda KPUV vz. 38, with an up to 1-mile range at 35 rounds per minute. It could pierce a 50 mm armor from 0.7 miles apart, and was a very effective weapon. This very cannon was already in place before the German invasion, and was taken by the Wehrmacht to the Atlantic Wall in Norway. It has been returned to its original location in recent times.

There are other two metal-reinforced embrasures in the bunker for other two ZB vz. 26s. On the same floor you can find a kitchenette and toilets for the troops, ammo storages, and two observation turrets. The latter feature a working movable floor, to allow tailoring to the height of the observer. The turrets were fitted with a periscope, and were used to direct fire. They weighed 21 tonnes each, and could withstand direct close fire from anti-tank guns!

Finally, the room of the commander and the telephone room – with an original machine from the Thirties – conclude the tour.

The Lom object, five minutes uphill with respect to the Brezinka fort, is another infantry bunker. It has not been refurbished to the level of Brezinka, but nonetheless it is used to showcase construction pieces, weapons and memorabilia from WWII years. The armored turret was taken away by the Germans.

Between the Brezinka and Lom bunkers you can find a section of anti-tank obstacles. The concrete base used to support them can be spotted in several places here and other sites of the defensive line.

Getting there and moving around

These bunkers, and especially Brezinka, are surely among the most interesting of the kind to visit, considering also their counterparts in France, Finland and Belarus.

The Voda site is easily accessible by car. The Brezinka and Lom bunkers cannot be reached by car. You can park on a street close to the trail-head and take the trail. Unfortunately, the road going uphill, albeit not uneven, is extremely steep and about 1 mile long. You should definitely take this into consideration when planning your excursion, even if you are physically well-trained. Very few beverages are available at the Lom site, which is five minutes farther uphill from Brezinka. Nothing is sold at Brezinka.

It is a pity they didn’t prepare a better access road, cause the site is surely worth a visit, and may appeal to the specialist and to the general public – especially children! – as well.

Only cash is accepted in all these sites. The Brezinka site is accessible only with guided tours. Tours were offered every 20 minutes in late August when I visited. You are given a detailed leaflet in English or German, in case you can’t speak Czech. The guided tour of Brezinka takes about 50 minutes.

The Lom site can be toured in 10 minutes, whereas the Voda bunker is worth a 20-30 minutes self-guided visit. Explanations are partly also in English and other languages in the Voda bunker.

Information on these three forts can be found from this website.

Hanicka

The Hanicka site features an extensive underground tunnel system, actually connecting the main entrance to some major peripheral forts. The ensemble includes one of the few most imposing firing units in the entire defensive line.

But what makes this site even more unique is the fact that, after having fallen into oblivion since the end of WWII, in the 1970s it was selected to be developed into a nuclear-proof governmental bunker – codenamed ‘Kahan’. The ensuing modifications altered greatly the appearance of the entrance bunker, and most of the systems you can see today in the underground part are actually dating from the 1980s.

The works on the conversion were carried out at a slow pace, and were actually not completed before the end of communism in Czechoslovakia, the collapse of the Czechoslovakian federation and the birth of the Czech Republic in the early 1990s. The bunker was soon opened to the public as a unique specimen of military building engineering from both WWII and the Cold War.

The tunnels can be be visited only with a guided tour. The original entrance to the tunnel, modified in the 1980s, is the starting point of the visit. The entrance to the bunker looked totally different before it was developed into a nuclear shelter. The modifications at the level of the entrance included the construction of a soft service building, with room for storages of trucks, armored vehicles and other material.

In the first hall giving access to the tunnels you can find weapons, communication systems, scale models of the site, maps and much more from both the ‘two lives’ of the bunker, in the 1930s and 1980s.

Access it through a thick, typical soviet nuclear-blast-proof gate. Inside, you see the nuclear-proof system allowed to seal a section of the entry tunnel close to the gate. The bunker was designed to allow long-term survival and operations for 300 people also in case of total insulation from the world outside.

A modern energy production system was put in place and can be seen together with water and gasoline tanks. The structure of the bunkers was not altered significantly, but the various systems date clearly from more recently than the Thirties.

There are also extensive sleeping quarters and a medical facility to the far end of the main tunnel, which was built in the side of a hill.